Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What about Afghanistan? 

If we are to make reasoned decisions about our involvement in Afghanistan we need accurate reporting on that country and the events there. Channel 4 News last night put out a right curates egg of a report that illustrates how much care needs to be taken. A serious subject – the re-emergence of the Taliban in the Helmand province, with schools getting torched and a terrifying incident where the Channel 4 camera team was threatened by a Taliban squad which had just burnt down a school.

It is not Channel 4’s fault that the armed goons they met looked like models for the notorious ‘exploding turban’ Danish cartoon or that their general behaviour jarringly recalled the Life Of Brian and the Judaean Liberation Front. But the explanatory comments in the report were sometimes shatteringly misleading.

For example, saying that these people were ‘speaking Arabic’. If that is true it is a momentous discovery. The local language is Pashtun, indeed Helmand province is the area the Pashtun language traditionally originated.

And referring to these characters as ‘Talib’. Now that definitely does not sound like local practice. ‘Talib’ is indeed an Arabic loan word in Pashtun, one of many drawn from Islamic writings. It still does sound a little foreign to a Pashtun speaker. The form ‘Taliban’ takes the foreign root and adds a standard Pashtun plural ending (–an) to make a word that sounds more of local origin. Back when the ‘Taliban’ were in control of Afghanistan people outside the regime would refer to the hordes of foreign hangers- on from Arabia and Pakistan and elsewhere as ‘Talib’ to emphasise their foreign-ness. Only local Pashtuns working for the regime were called ‘Taliban’.

The Ch4 report did mention these former foreign hangers-on but missed an important point The Pashtun Taliban were quite happy to hand over or even hunt down themselves such people, who had often been an arrogant nuisance and breached Pashtunwali (see below). But the locally born Taliban never went away.

We do need to recognise the importance of Pashtun Nationalism in all this. More Pashtun speakers live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. About 20 percent of the population of Pakistan in fact. Pashtuns have traditionally provided the ruling group in Afghanistan even though they make up less than half the population. Pakistan is enormously involved with Afghanistan and for decades had a policy of building up these links to provide a deep hinterland in case of war with India over Kashmir.

The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is effectively non-existent for Pashtuns, certainly as far as cultural practices go. And Pashtuns live according to a traditional code of values that actually predates Islam – the Pashtunwali.

Pashtunwali places on its adherents an unlimited obligation to offer hospitality, even to those who come in hostility. The exception is anyone who pretends to call on the principles of Pashtunwali but exploits this for their own corrupt ends.

The complications in all this for British troops moving into Helmand are legion. It think it would be helpful to have a sober debate back here, in the party and in Parliament, on what on earth we can hope to do in Afghanistan. Whoever wins the LibDem leadership poll cannot get by with ringing declarations about international law and obligations.

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